Gravely charming stand-alone from the chronicler of Mma Precious Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie (The Lost Art of Gratitude, 2009, etc.) sees an aggressively ordinary English widow through the dark days of World War II.
Despite being warned by her tutor that too many women leave Cambridge with a husband instead of a career, that’s exactly what Lavender Ferguson does. Even worse, the man who presses her to marry him, wine-merchant scion Richard Stone, soon presses on to greener pastures—i.e., France with another woman. Deeply sad but matter-of-fact about her failed marriage, La retreats to Sussex, where she is financially secure but very much at loose ends. After war is declared, she casts about for some way to help the war effort in this isolated rural area where she’s never made the friends she rather naively expected. At length she volunteers to help arthritic chicken farmer Henry Madder feed the troops and the nation. While she’s working as a freelance Land Girl, a conversation with Squadron-Leader and amateur trumpeter Tim Honey prompts La to take the lead in forming an amateur orchestra that can keep up the locals’ spirits and perhaps even show Hitler a thing or two. Her plans put her into close contact with wounded Polish airman Feliks Dabrowski, a flutist who lacks both an eye and an instrument. La falls in love with Feliks. A thief relieves Henry of £800. Suspicion is confined to an uncomfortably small circle. As in Chekhov, such incidents constantly portend decisive developments that somehow never come to pass.
Like Chekhov, Smith shows his heroine, who believes that “music could make a difference in the temper of the world,” triumphing over the details of everyday life by immersing herself in them so completely that she achieves an apotheosis in the reflection, “I have been a handmaiden.”